Chardonnay

Postcard From New Mexico

28 August 2013
Ponderosa Chardonnay

Ponderosa Chardonnay

Who knew New Mexican wines could be so delicious? I’ve tasted quite a few so far, and it hasn’t been a case of unearthing a few gems in a sea of mediocrity. The vast majority of the wines I’ve sampled have been well-crafted and delicious enough for me to want a second glass. In fact, the only true disappointment of the trip has been a mouth-puckeringly tart Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc blend from France’s Loire Valley!

What a contrast to the Chardonnay pictured above, produced by Ponderosa Valley Vineyards. I drank this delightful wine over a relaxing al fresco lunch at the surprisingly pleasant Museum Café, set between Santa Fe’s Museum of International Folk Art and the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture. The Ponderosa Chardonnay had a lovely green-gold color and a fresh, limey aroma. It started sweet, with a note of honeysuckle, but the wine was admirably balanced with gingery spice and bright acids. Paired with some duck flautas, the spiciness of the wine really jumped out.

This Chardonnay retails for about $17.50, according to the Ponderosa website, which seems like quite a fine deal to me. If I see a bottle in a store, you can be sure I’ll be snapping it right up.

Summery Wines From The Heel Of The Boot

5 July 2013

CanteleItay’s DOC system doesn’t always work as originally planned, most notably evidenced by the rise of Super Tuscans, which long had to be labeled as simple table wine in spite of their high quality. But Tuscany isn’t the only part of Italy which had to rethink its classification system. Sine 1992, a host of regions have adopted the IGT category (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) in an attempt to deal with the embarrassing number of Vino da Tavola wines selling for much higher prices than the supposedly superior DOC bottlings.

Puglia, the heel of Italy’s boot, was one such region to buy into the IGT system, and the Salento IGT encompasses the entire peninsula. This more flexible classification system, along with increased foreign demand for wine in the 1990s, led to significant improvements in Pugliese viticulture, though even today, less than a quarter of Puglia’s wine production is sold by the bottle, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine. The rest is sold in bulk, making its way into vermouth, cheap blended wine and brandy.

Nevertheless, the reputation of the Pugliese wine that does make it into bottles is steadily improving, as innovative winemakers focus on lower yields and high-quality grape varieties, both local and international. The large Cantele Winery is one such venture. The family has been in the wine business since just after World War II, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that the Canteles started buying their own vineyards and growing their own grapes.

I had the fortune to receive complimentary samples of three of Cantele’s wines, two of which demonstrated the success and value of the IGT classification system. The World Atlas of Wine has unkind words for IGT Chardonnay del Salento, calling these wines “anodyne shelf-fillers,” but I certainly enjoyed the 2011 Cantele Chardonnay del Salento. If you like your whites bright and un-oaky, you’ll enjoy it too.  Friends with whom I tasted this wine had plenty to say about its aroma, calling it “bready,” “creamy and tart,” and “peary, but not like a mealy Bartlett pear, it’s more of a Bosc.” Another taster, less sure of his aroma-detecting capabilities, asked, “Does it smell nutty? Or am I having a stroke?”

I also got notes of pear in the aroma (variety uncertain), along with some heady honeysuckle. It tasted crisp and juicy, with a bit of honey on the finish along with some gingery spice. Lively and light on its feet, I suspect most people would never guess this was a Chardonnay. It’s a perfect choice for a hot summer afternoon. According to Wine Searcher, it retails for an average of $12 — an excellent value.

The second IGT wine we sampled was a rosé of Negroamaro, an ancient variety that is a specialty of Puglia. “Negroamaro” translates as either “black bitter” or “black black,” depending on whether you work with Italian or Latin and Greek. The second translation, albeit repetitious, seems most likely, since this variety originated in Greece, arriving in Italy with Greek colonists in the 6th or 7th century B.C., according to the Oxford Companion.

I’d never tried a rosé made from Negroamaro, and so it was with some excitement I poured myself a glass of the 2011 Cantele Negroamaro Rosato. Straight out of the fridge, it didn’t have much of a bouquet — only when it warmed up a bit did I detect some red berries, chalk and a hint of something floral. On the palate, however, it offered plenty of sunny, strawberry fruit and some bracing minerals, reminiscent of pink aspirin. It felt sprightly throughout, and I liked the spicy lift at the end. Selling for just $10 or $11, according to Wine Searcher, it’s a fun and unique choice for a picnic or barbeque.

The third wine in the sample was not an IGT — it conforms to the stricter regulations of Salice Salentino, a landlocked DOC right in the middle of the Salento peninsula. According to The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, the best wines in the Salice Salentino DOC are its Negroamaro-based reds, and the 2009 Cantele Salice Salentino Riserva certainly did not disappoint. This 100% Negroamaro had tight, powdery red-fruit aroma and ample fruit on the palate. I got a blast of cherries, and others in the group also tasted currants and raisins. Rich but bright, this full-bodied wine had well-balanced, rustic acids and some serious tannins on the finish. Binny’s sells this red beauty for $11,  which is a steal.

Since Cantele produces about two million bottles each year, according to its website, you have a fighting chance of finding one or more of its well-priced wines in your local shop. I’m certainly going to keep my eye out for them. And if any of you folks have sampled Cantele’s 100% Verdeca, let me know — I’m itching to give it a try.

Albemarle County’s Celebrity Wineries

11 August 2012

The wines of Virginia blew me away at the Wine Bloggers Conference, held last year in Charlottesville. I had no idea such great things were happening down there; after all, I’d never even sampled a Virginia wine before the conference. They’re not available in every corner grocery. And because of the rarity of these wines up north, I was excited to have the opportunity to return to Albemarle County and get my palate around a few more of these beauties.

Two wineries I put at the top of my list were Trump and Blenheim, owned by Donald Trump and Dave Matthews, respectively. I missed their wines entirely on last year’s visit, and I was curious how these celebrity wineries, set less than a mile apart from each other, would perform. Would Trump wines be overblown, lacking restraint and finesse? Would Blenheim’s be, as iTunes describes the Dave Matthews Band’s debut album, “long-winded” and “unfocused”? I was determined to find out.

The Trump Winery, as you might imagine, comes with quite a story. Trump purchased the winery from Patricia Kluge, a figure who is not beloved in the Virginia wine scene. She engaged in some major real estate bets and winery expansions just as the economy tanked in 2008, and lost much of her fortune, including her winery. A certain sommelier told me that he engaged in a little Schadenfreude, attending the auctions of her furniture, jewelry and wine, managing to purchase hundreds of cases for as little as $2.00 each (most cases of wine went for $14). But an assistant winemaker I spoke with said that Kluge was actually great for the Virginia wine industry. She brought in major winemaking talent, but no one could stand to work for her longer than a year or two. They would then quit, and go off to start their own wineries or find employment at existing ones.

Donald Trump purchased the winery, as well as the front lawn of Kluge’s palatial mansion (he’s waiting for the price on the house itself to go down, as it surely will, since Trump owns all the land right up to the front door). Amid all these shenanigans, Kluge Estate (now the Trump Winery) continued to produce acclaimed wines, and I wanted to try some myself. After a drive through some beautifully rolling countryside past notable landmarks such as Monticello, I found my way to the glossy tasting room.

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Philadelphia Degustation – Part 1

25 July 2012

Philadelphia may mix a mean cocktail, but the wine scene isn’t too shabby either. I was delighted to discover that most restaurants I visited had something unusual on their wine-by-the-glass menus, and I availed myself of the opportunity to try a number of deliciously odd vintages.

For your vicarious pleasure, a six-course tasting menu complete with wine pairings:

COURSE 1: Languedoc Blanc de Blancs

To start, a non-vintage Jean-Louis Denois Brut Blanc de Blancs from France’s Languedoc region, sampled at Le Bec Fin. A wine from this rather humble region seemed almost out of place at this relentlessly formal restaurant, where a bust of Marie Antoinette peers unironically at diners through cascades of crystal chandeliers. Even today, inconsistent Languedoc produces vast seas of boring vin ordinaire as well as exciting terroir-focused varietals (unusual in a country known mostly for blends).

In keeping with Languedoc fashion, this varietal sparkling wine is 100% Chardonnay, as indicated by the words “Blanc de Blancs” on the label. My initial feelings of suspicion were quickly assuaged. The wine had a rather green aroma, and it started tight and tart on the palate before opening up into flavors of apples and yeast. Bubbles felt prickly but elegantly small. Delicious. It cut right through the richness of some seared Hudson Valley foie gras, making for an excellent pairing. Even so, it’s hard to get over the eye-popping $19 per-flute price tag. That’s the average price for an entire bottle, according to Wine Searcher! Well, I suppose Le Bec Fin has to pay for all that gilt somehow.

COURSE 2: Grüner Veltliner

Next, a refreshing glass of Austria’s most famous variety, Grüner Veltliner, sipped at farm-to-table sensation Talula’s Garden. This food-friendly variety has a murky and fascinating history. Genetic testing revealed that one of its parents was Traminer, but the other parent remained a mystery for some time, until (at least according to Wikipedia) its other parent was found in the year 2000. Only a single vine of this parent variety remained, barely clinging to life in an overgrown pasture. Apparently, there are plans to try cultivating this mystery variety in the near future, and I can’t help but feel pretty darn excited about that.

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A Wine Region On The Cusp: Part 2

27 June 2012

As I mentioned at the end of the previous post, I still hadn’t quite put all the pieces together. How was it that Arizona, of all places, was coming up with these numerous high-quality wines?

In the professional and lively tasting room of Page Springs Cellars, an assistant winemaker named Matt pointed out the obvious: “We have ample water from the creek outside, and there’s an aquifer below.” He continued describing the terroir, how the rocky hillsides were well-drained with poor soil (the soil shouldn’t be too fertile — you want the vines to struggle a bit). The weather was hot during the day, of course, but at night, the high-elevation vineyards stayed nice and cool. Indeed, I had cozied up to my fireplace the evening before.

In short, the Page Springs terroir is pretty darn great. Most of the fruit, however, still seems to come from Arizona’s southeast, which is at a similar elevation.

Matt thought Malvasia might become one of Arizona’s signature varieties, and my tasting at Page Springs Cellars certainly supported that theory. I sampled that along with a number of other excellent wines, mostly Rhône varietals and blends, the quality of which no longer came as a surprise. If you only have time to visit one winery while in the Sedona area, this should be it.

Here’s a rundown of my tasting. Again, all the fruit from these wines comes from southeastern Arizona, not the Page Springs area, unless otherwise noted:

2010 Bonita Springs Malvasia: Like all the other wines I sampled at Page Springs Cellars, this one came with an eye-catching black and white label. The nose had big fruit and a touch of flowers, and juicy acids balanced subtle flavors of peach and pineapple. $28

2010 La Serrana: Try this blend of 50% Viognier from the Arizona Stronghold vineyard and 50% Rousanne from the Colibri vineyard as soon as you can. According to the Page Springs Cellars website, “A portion of the [Colibri] vineyard was burned to the ground. Thirty-foot high flames cooked the vineyard on three sides and damaged many other vines.” The wine had a nutty, almost buttery aroma, and it certainly tasted rich and creamy. But it was fruity as well, and ample acids kept the wine light on its feet. $30

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A Little Chicago In The Fluteau

6 June 2012

Although drinking Champagne (from France, with a capital “C”) is all too unusual in my household, the beverage itself could hardly be considered obscure. Everyone has heard of it, and I’m pretty sure anyone reading these words likes to drink it. But even Champagne has its odd side.

Most Champagnes we encounter in the United States tend to be non-vintage, brut (dry but not austere), and Négociant Manipulant (basically, sourced from a range of different vineyards in the region). I always like to seek out the more terroir-influenced Récoltant Manipulant Champagnes, otherwise known as grower Champagnes. You can tell the difference by looking at the tiny serial number on the label, which will say NM or RM, or, rarely, any of five other letter combinations. It’s France; they like their wine complicated.

In any case, while shopping at Binny’s for a sparkling wine to use for our wedding toast last year, I came across a most tempting bottle of 2004 Château Fluteau Cuvée Prestige Blanc de Blancs. My Odd Bacchus sensors lit up like a Feuerzangenbowle — here was a vintage Champagne that was also grower. And that wasn’t all: 2004 is the year my partner (now husband) and I met! It was too romantic and too unusual to pass up.

When I researched the wine, I learned that it had yet more wonderfully unusual qualities. (more…)

A Grand Cru Beginning

4 January 2012

It’s all too easy to let a special bottle languish in the wine rack, collecting dust for years, waiting for just the right special moment. And as that special bottle grows older, so too grows the amount of specialness a moment requires to justify opening it. It’s a specialness feedback loop which frequently ends in the slow, quiet death of the wine.

This loop can be all the more deadly when you lack a reliably cool cellar, as I do, and your wine suffers significant temperature fluctuations. One of my personal New Year’s resolutions, therefore, is to work my way through a substantial number of my “too special to open” wines.

I opened my first special bottle on New Year’s Eve, a good time to start work on my recommended resolution of drinking more sparkling wine. A golden-labeled bottle of non-vintage (NV) Michel Turgy Réserve-Sélection Blanc-de-Blanc Brut Champagne had provided a frisson of grandeur to my wine rack for years, but the “Sam’s Wines” sticker on the back indicated it had been too many (Sam’s Wines was unfortunately bought out by Binny’s in 2009). I hoped it wasn’t already too late.

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Speed Blogging! (Part 1)

22 July 2011

As part of the Wine Bloggers’ Conference, we have a “Speed Blogging” session, in which we’re to sample a bunch o’ wine and blog about it as we’re tasting. I’ve never tried such a thing, but since some of these wines are most definitely unusual, I think it’s worth a try:

2010 Keswick Vineyards Verdejo: Light, sprightly, acidic, with green aromas. Melon, green apples and grassy flavors. Still experimenting, Keswick Vineyards grows only an acre of this varietal, which is much more likely to be found in Spain than Virginia. $18 retail. Not a bad deal for what’s sure to be a conversation starter.

2009 Tarara Winery “Nevaeh”: Set on the Potomac in the far north of Virginia, this winery focuses on “low yields and terrior.” This wine is  a blend of 70% Viognier (a varietal noted as doing well in Virginia) and 30% Chardonnay. Tight, bright aromas, with ample oak but enough balancing acids to make it food-friendly. Buttery and minerally, it’s not as floral as I expected. $30 retail. Expensive, but pretty darn tasty.

2009 Williamsburg Winery Chardonnay: “If you want a Burgundian-style Chardonnay but don’t want to pay for it, this wine is for you,” according to the sales rep. Rich bouquet, with some flinty stone. Nicely balanced, with some of the wine aged in steel and some in oak. Nice and light, with butter offset by food-friendly acids – ideal for fish, cheese… And a great buy for $14 retail.

2010 Cornerstone Cellars “Stepping Stone” Rosé: A light, charming pink, this rosé is 100% Syrah from Oak Knoll in the Napa Valley. Some bubblegum on the nose, I enjoyed its creamy texture and watermelon flavors. The $18 price tag seems a bit of a stretch, but there’s no denying it’s good.

2009 Emma Pearl Central Coast Chardonnay: I really liked this Chardonnay (blended with 10% Viognier); it felt lush and rich, with just enough acids to make me want to pair it with a schnitzel or some saltimbocca. Or maybe I’m just in desperate need of food after six hours of wine tasting. A fine deal at $18 retail. (My neighbor, incidentally, exclaimed “Schnitzel?! F**k yeah!”

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Twilight

16 May 2011

In the last couple of decades, Lebanon has unfortunately been more famous for its wars than its wine. It wasn’t always so. According to André Dominé’s Wine, excavations at Byblos, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, “…have shown that wine must have been made [in Lebanon] more than 5,000 years ago.” The Phoenecians exported wine to Egypt, and the Romans erected a temple to Bacchus in Baalbek, even now the heart of Lebanon’s wine industry.

Despite this illustrious history, Lebanon boasted just five wineries as of 1991 according to The Telegraph, and Dominé’s 2001 edition of Wine also lists only five wineries: Château Musar, Fakra, Ksara, Clos St. Thomas and Château Kefraya. These stalwarts have been joined by at least 25 more wineries in the last ten years, including “boutique” wineries such as Massaya.

This winery was something rather new, a partnership between the Lebanese Ghosn brothers, Dominique Herard (owner of Château Trianon near Saint-Emilion) and the Brunier brothers (owners of Domaine du Vieux Télégraph near Châteauneuf-du-Pape). In addition to producing highly regarded wines, Massaya embraced wine tourism, opening a welcoming tasting room and the idyllic Vineyard Restaurant.

I was fortunate to find a bottle of the Massaya Blanc at In Fine Spirits, my neighborhood wine shop. I secured the last bottle on the shelf, a bottle, the clerk confided to me, that he had intended to take home the night before.

“Massaya” means “twilight” in Lebanese, or in the more extravagant translation of Massaya’s distributor, “the time of day when twilight sets on the vineyard and the sky turns purple as the sun sets behind Mount-Lebanon.” The Massaya Blanc certainly made me want to see that sunset for myself.

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